By Corey Connelly
T&T's Newsday | Sunday, July 21 2013
Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez was not even a teenager when he first experienced the healing power of the First People’s.
Bharath-Hernandez, 58, Chief of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, recalled that as a young boy, growing up in Calvary Hill, Arima, he had seen his late maternal great grandfather, Jacinto Hernandez, an elderly descendant of the tribe, perform a ritual on his sister, Diane Rudolfo, which he said, left him dumbfounded.
“My sister had bitten off a small part of a rubber slipper and pushed it into her nose and this affected her ability to breathe,” he told Sunday Newsday in an interview at the Carib Centre, Paul Mitchell Street, Arima.
Bharath-Hernandez recalled that his frightened mother, Elsie Rita Hernandez, had attempted to use a clip to extract the piece of rubber but instead of removing it, pushed the rubber further into his sister’s nostril.
“My sister ended up at the Arima Hospital and was told by the doctors that surgery may have had to be performed,” he said.
“But they were skeptical because they would have had to get permission from her father who was at work, so it was my grandmother who suggested to my mother that they take her to see our great grandfather.”
Bharath-Hernandez recalled that his great grandfather quickly performed an ancient prayer ritual on his sister, which, he claimed, saved her life.
“He (great grandfather) put his hands on her head and said prayers of the religious tradition,” he said. “While saying the prayers, he said she would sneeze three times before the piece of rubber came out. And the third time she sneezed, it really came out.”
Bharath-Hernandez, who was possibly about ten at the time, said the experience stuck with him, so much so that he had resolved, even at that tender age, to devote his life to preserving the heritage of the country’s indigenous peoples.
The Santa Rosa Chief recalled fond memories of his life on Calvary Hill, traditionally believed to be the home of the indigenous peoples.
Apart from experiencing the abilities of his great grandfather, whom he learnt, also healed persons with various complaints, ranging from snake bites to ailments about the body, Bharath-Hernandez recalled seeing his grandparents and other relatives preparing busily for the Santa Rosa Carib Festival. The event now forms part of the annual Arima Fest celebrations in August.
“As a child these things attract you because it meant time away from home and the children in the area were all part of the activity,” said Bharath-Hernandez.
“We would all go to the church (nearby Santa Rosa RC Church at the foot of Calvary Hill) to help them and we would be scolded if we did something wrong. It had an enduring effect on me and I continued where others did not have the drive to do so.”
But, decades later, the desire to effect change for his people has, for the most part, been an uphill battle, he says.
“Sometimes, it appears as though it is a lesson in futility but then something comes and re-inspires you to keep on,” Bharath-Hernandez said. “I would have left a long time ago but then something comes to encourage you.”
As head of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, a position he assumed during the 1980’s, Bharath-Hernandez has been lobbying aggressively for “meaningful recognition” for his people for more than three decades.
Bharath-Hernandez said his family business, which produces indigenous foods such as cassava breads, ferine and related items, for sale, locally, is evidence of his desire to preserve aspects of the heritage.
The Carib Centre, established during the 1970’s alongside his home on Paul Mitchell Street, also bears testimony of the community’s efforts to preserve its ancestry, he said.
The centre, which can be regarded as a museum, contains instruments, writings and artifacts relevant to the First Peoples and remains a must-go destination for many visiting the eastern borough.
However, mild-mannered Bharath-Hernandez lamented that many in the society, including past governments, have not valued the contribution of the First People’s in shaping Trinidad and Tobago’s historical landscape.
“We are not a club or a parang association,” he said, alluding to the feeling that the community was simply about acquiring funding from the Government and other organisations.
The feeling by some that descendants of the First People’s, locally, were largely “watered down” versions of the indigenous inhabitants, have also contributed to the failure of the authorities to comprehensively address their concerns over the years, Bharath-Hernandez believes.
“But look at the Metie People in Canada. They are an indigenous group of mixed blood line and they enjoy protection under the constitution of Canada,” he argued.
In his latest battle, Bharath-Hernandez, supported by other members of the community, is urging the Government to develop a portion of the Red House, Port-of-Spain, into a national heritage site following the discovery of bones and artifacts of the indigenous people, several weeks ago.
Last Saturday, the group visited the Red House, where they performed the first of a two-part Purublaka ceremony to appease the spirits of the indigenous peoples whose remains are buried at the site. The second phase of the ritual is expected to be performed in October by a Shaman, preferably from one of the neighbouring countries in which there are First Peoples inhabitants.
Bharath-Hernandez, who served as a PNM councillor on the Arima Borough Council for some 18 years, regarded the find at the Red House as significant.
“It is not only about remembering those whose spirits lie there but also those who still live here and do not have their rightful place,” he told Sunday Newsday.
According to Bharath-Hernandez, descendants of the First Peoples in this country have long been viewed as “another cultural minority group,” when, in fact, they should enjoy “inherent rights” with respect to land titles. “These rights are supported by the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples which 144 countries voted for and Trinidad and Tobago is one of them,” he said.
The First Peoples, Bharath-Hernandez said, had initially been granted some 1,300 acres of land through a then Treaty by the Spanish Government.
“But somehow, they lost their lands under the British. That, to me, is a legal issue,” he said.
Bharath-Hernandez said since that period in the country’s history, descendants of the First People’s survived in scattered, unorganised communities in areas such as Caura, Tacarigua, Arouca, Lopinot, La Pastora, Santa Cruz, Maracas/St Joseph, Tamana and San Rafael.
The father of three estimates there are about 10,000 descendants of First Peoples living in the country. However, he claimed the community in Santa Rosa, Arima, was by far the most structured.
Nevertheless, Bharath-Hernandez said the community, a registered body which now falls within the purview of the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration, is not without its challenges.
Although there are about 700 First People’s descendants in Arima and its environs, the Chief lamented that only about 120 participate actively in ceremonies and rituals.
He said these are usually limited to the Santa Rosa Carib Festival and the Heritage Day event in October, both of which receive government assistance.
Attributing the shortfall in participation to the fact that many descendants have different occupations and responsibilities, Bharath-Hernandez said many of the young people were also integrated heavily into the wider society and, as a result, were not focused on the indigenous aspect of their heritage.
He admits, “There is hardly anybody that lives the indigenous heritage to its fullest because things have changed. That has gone from us a long time. But there are still those who still practice aspects of the spirituality.”
Bharath-Hernandez said the most popular ritual was perhaps the smoke ceremony in which tobacco, herbs, leaves and other items are used during prayer sessions.
“Different items are used depending on what is being prayed for,” he said.
The former Deputy Arima Mayor said, however, that a “significant portion” of young descendants still want to know more about their heritage.
As such, he believes the 25-acre plot of land, which First People’s descendants have received (five acres from the PNM and the other 20-acres from the People’s Partnership Government), along the Blanchisseuse Road, Arima, holds the key to their future.
“It would mean that they (young descendants) can become involved in something to create a greater awareness. For now, there is nothing to hold on to and see returns,” he said, adding that the land, located in a forest reserve area, was being surveyed.
Bharath-Hernandez said the land has been earmarked for the construction of a full-fledged Amerindian Village, which would contain a cassava factory, craft museum, home for the Carib Queen, guest house, among other amenities.
Saying he expects that a major part of the project should be realised in three years time, Bharath-Hernandez said a master development plan for the Amerindian Village still had to be drawn up.
“That is a very costly exercise,” he said.
Bharath-Hernandez insisted that the community was not interested in hand-outs.
“All we are asking for are the basics - infrastructure, access to the site and some start-up funding,” he said, adding that there are plans to access funding from other sources. Bharath-Hernandez said when completed the Amerindian village would benefit the entire country.
“While it is not a tourism project, it is going to have a tourism component,” he said. “This can be a major aspect of divestment as it relates to preserving the culture. It would not be a URP or a CEPEP that could be taken away.”